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Subject: Cultural Studies »

John Fitzgerald on how Chinese declined after Federation

John Fitzgerald and Mara Moustafine.

Historian John Fitzgerald describes how the Chinese population of Australia declined after Federation



Date Added:

06 February 2009


source not available


mov (Quicktime);

File size:

16.8 MB






Before federation, a number of Chinese leaders imagined that federation would in fact enable them to move more freely than they could before federation, this is particularly because there were restraints on movement, not only from China to the Australian colonies, but between the Australian colonies. So it was not permitted without an additional poll tax for a Chinese immigrant to Victoria to cross the border to New South Wales - New South Wales itself had punitive taxes and limits on Chinese movement, the same to Queensland, to a lesser degree to South Australia and Tasmania.


So it was imagined by some of the Chinese community leaders that federation in breaking down the barriers among colonies and doing away with restraints on free trade across borders would facilitate greater movement – give them greater freedom to move than they had before. They didn’t it seems anticipate how strongly federation would come down against them in the sense that while it freed up movement of trade between the states, it set up very hard boundaries around Australia, effectively prohibiting Chinese immigration from 1901.


At the time of federation Australia was imagined as a new nation, pure, unsullied, white, stepping out into a new century to make its mark on the world. And the values associated with this Australian nationalism of – as they came to be known – egalitarianism, or the struggle for equal rights, mateship or the right to associate freely and to be loyal to one’s colleagues, independence and freedom, which are valued in every civil society. These were thought to be the values of this new, pure, pristine, unsullied, white nation and that other countries or peoples in the region couldn’t appreciate those values, in particular the Chinese. So the Chinese represented at this time as hierarchical as opposed to egalitarian – as being slavishly beholden to their masters as opposed to free and independent autonomous citizens.


And as being cunning and crafty and unlikely to be loyal to the new nation. So in many ways the attack on Chinese around this time was an attack on their values. What were assumed to be Chinese values or Asiatic values as distinct from the good Anglo Saxon values of the free-born Englishman. Now this is a rather bizarre misrepresentation as anyone who could read Chinese at the time or who could talk or speak with Chinese interpreters in Sydney or Melbourne would have discovered that Chinese in Australia – Chinese Australians were saying exactly the same thing. They too, were celebrating Australian Federation as the birth of a new, free, autonomous nation. They too, were calling for equal recognition of their rights, appealing to this egalitarian principle which was denied them by the Australian state.


They were speaking of mateship, of bonding among males in free associations, they were setting up Masonic societies, Christian churches, political parties all in the name of mateship and loyalty. But nobody seemed to notice or to care. Which is to say that the values debate at that time was in a sense driven by racism, by this I don’t mean that people imagined that Chinese were a lesser race as such, but rather that people in Australia, white Australians were not prepared to listen freely and openly with tolerance to the views of others, they simply assumed, on the basis of race that their values were different.


And it strikes me that’s a form of racism. Well Chinese Australians on the one hand were talking among themselves about how to take advantage of federation, how – they looked to federation and the coming together of different civic organisations as a model for themselves and if one reads the Chinese language newspapers of the day, in Sydney or Melbourne, there’s clearly a great deal of admiration for the spirit of free association and public engagement on the part of all Australians. So at this time, Chinese Australians begin to form their Chinese Masonic associations, they build Christian churches, in association with non-Chinese communities and they start forming political parties, really on the model of the new Australian federation.


At the same time they become increasingly engaged or try to become increasingly engaged with white Australians. It’s particularly the leading merchants, the interpreters and the Christian missionaries or the pastors of the Chinese churches who led the attempt to converse or dialogue with white Australia and this took the form of petitions, engagement in public associations and debates, writing of letters to newspapers as you might imagine and taking advantage of every available public forum for expressing their wish to be treated simply as equals.


They rejected outright, the idea that the values that white Australia proclaimed for itself were in any sense different from the values they proclaimed for themselves and for Australia, they too valued freedom, egalitarianism and mateship. But it was very clear to them at least, it became increasingly clear that white Australians were not prepared to concede that Chinese could be equal to themselves. Which was a very limiting view you might say, of egalitarianism. And that Chinese had no part in their organisations, so they were not prepared to be mates. And the Chinese they believed were simply culturally incapable of being independent and free.


And every attempt by Chinese Australians to say otherwise was simply ignored.


End transcript